Enemy of the State

How Glenn Greenwald is taking on the world, and why he'll never stop.

BY Natasha Vargas-Cooper

November 12 2013 6:00 AM ET


At left: Greenwald and Miranda at home in Rio de Jainero

A lot has been written about Snowden and Greenwald’s professional relationship and the comedy of errors-style course of events surrounding their first meeting. Vastly under-reported is the emotional relationship that has bonded the two men.

When Greenwald first saw Snowden in the restaurant of a Hong Kong hotel, his heart sank. Greenwald had flown across the globe with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to meet their anonymous source and was picturing a dandruff-dusted former spook in his 60s — not an IT guy in his 20s. “He looked so young!” Greenwald exclaims. “He was wearing a white T-shirt, hipster glasses, and sneakers, and I was like, ‘Is this the source’s son? His assistant? His gay lover? What the fuck is going on?’”

Greenwald and Poitras escorted Snowden to his grungy hotel room. Snowden had not left the room in two weeks and did not want to let any maids in to tidy, so there were stacks of plates everywhere. “I didn’t judge,” Greenwald says. “I knew he’d worked for the NSA at some point and the situation was fucked in ways I couldn’t even understand.” Snowden, Greenwald remembers, sensed their disappointment and tension. “It was so tense between us at first, we were both so stiff, and I think we didn’t like each other at first,” he says. Poitras set up a camera and immediately started filming the two, and Greenwald went into full-blown litigator mode, conducting a six-hour, nonstop examination of Snowden.

“I wanted to find his solid foundation,” Greenwald recalls. “I wanted to know he had agency and autonomy.” He wanted a deeply satisfying explanation of Snowden’s motivations, not only for leaking but for wanting to go public with his identity. “I just needed to know that it was real and grounded in clear-eyed analysis and self-awareness,” Greenwald says. “Snowden was giving me bullshit answers.”

Snowden continued to insist he was no hero and was just trying to do the right thing as Greenwald fired questions, trying to isolate what informed Snowden’s sense of right and wrong, until Snowden gave Greenwald an answer he didn’t expect but immediately understood. It wasn’t Hegelian theories on power structures or Ron Paul rhetoric about privacy; it wasn’t Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (Greenwald’s greatest influence) or Jeffersonian notions of government. It was comic books and video games. “You have good guys who are forced to do difficult but good things,” Snowden said to Greenwald, a bit embarrassed.

Greenwald, who has no interest in either video games or comics, knows first-hand what sort of moral universe they can create for their devotees; Miranda has built his entire ethical code on countless hours of video gameplay.

“It’s not a simplistic ideology. David is one of the most complex, intellectually curious, and sophisticated people I’ve ever met, and he’s the one who convinced me that being influenced by the moral dynamics of a comic book or video game is no less noble than being shaped by a novel or a book,” Greenwald reasons. “You can watch The Matrix and take it as an action movie, or you can delve into all its greater existentialist meanings. All of the narratives in these comic books are about these single individuals devoted to justice who have the willingness to be brave, who can defeat even the most powerful edifices of evil.”

When Miranda was detained in England, Greenwald spent most of those nine hours binge-eating Doritos and talking to Snowden over encrypted chat. “I was furious; I felt so powerless, but I think Snowden was even more outraged.”

I ask Greenwald if Snowden told him the names of any of the video games or comic books that influenced him. “No,” Greenwald says, laughing. “How the fuck would I know any of that Dungeons and Dragons shit?” But it was the answer he was looking for, authentic and solid. They moved forward and the rest is history, still unfolding before us.

And there’s more to come. During our last meeting over a candlelit Thai dinner lubricated with some local red wine, Greenwald is veritably fizzing with all his plans. He’s pounding out a book on the Snowden story, set for publication in the spring. And, he warns, there’s still a lot of grenades to be thrown from the Snowden document cache. He has some dreams, of course, but the Work comes first.

“I’ve always thought stability was suffocating and deadly. Like, when I read that the kids I went to law school with have stayed at the same firm, I feel like I’m reading an obituary. How much money do you need? Six million, seven million? Put that in the bank and do something else. Get out!” he says with another sip of wine.

“Can I tell you what I would do with $6 million?” he says with a faraway, almost bashful tone to his voice. “I have this fantasy of buying farmland in Brazil with David and just taking care of as many dogs as we can. Is that totally crazy?”

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